Searching movie review: real virtuality

Searching green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

With smarts, warmth, and humanity, this mystery that unfurls entirely on computer screens becomes an ode to the new digital lives we are all leading, from how we use our devices to what they say about us.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love John Cho
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

It’s a story that plays out entirely on computer screens: Skype calls, Google searches, YouTube videos, and so on. Watching Searching is like looking over the shoulder of someone using their computer (but in a good way, I promise). It’s not the first time this has been done: 2015’s Unfriended told a teen paranormal-horror tale the same way. In my review of that film, I called it “the next step in found-footage: Screengrab: The Motion Picture,” and we will surely see lots of movies made with this coudn’t-be-more-of-the-moment cinematic conceit. There have already been a few others: the rightly little-seen 2014 thriller Open Windows did something similar; and there was the appalling Unfriended sequel, Dark Web, just earlier this summer.

All our family milestones are captured digitally now... and are tagable, searchable, instantly at our digital beck and call.
All our family milestones are captured digitally now… and are tagable, searchable, instantly at our digital beck and call.

None of these films achieved what Searching does (not that they even tried): with smarts and warmth and enormous humanity, first-time feature director and cowriter (with Sev Ohanian) Aneesh Chaganty has crafted an ode to the new digital lives we are all leading, one that neither condemns nor celebrates but simply acknowledges and describes. There are no supernatural boogeymen here, and this isn’t a cautionary tale about the dangers of the cyber world… or at least it’s not only that. Yes, there are elements to Searching’s story that touch on real pitfalls to be encountered online, such as the intimacy that social media can offer that we don’t always or immediately recognize as false. But there are joys to be found in our new digital lives, too, as well as myriad mundanities. And ironically, and unlike can be said of most films offered up as entertainment, it is the mundanities that make Searching so special.

This is ostensibly the story of how San Jose dad David (John Cho: Gemini, Star Trek Beyond) goes about investigating the disappearance of his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La). But before we even get to that, we get a charming introduction to this little family relayed entirely through the screens that document their lives. Where once, in stories set in the 1960s or 70s or 80s, we might have been treated to Super 8 or VHS home movies, or Instamatic or Polaroid snapshots, now we see someone creating a new user, on a desktop computer running an early-2000s version of Windows, for newborn Margot. We’re seeing only the screen, remember, so the user is unseen, but we soon understand that it is either David or, later evidence will suggest, his wife, Pamela (Sara Sohn: Furious 7), Margot’s mother. All the childhood milestones of adorable little Margot (played at various younger ages by Alex Jayne Go, Megan Liu, and Kya Dawn Lau) are represented digitally, from pix on the first day of school to MP4 files of her tween piano recitals. In the mix are similar digital artifacts that clue us in to Pamela’s struggle with cancer and — oh no — her death a few years before now.

The online revolution brings us new windows into a life... and into a news story.
The online revolution brings us new windows into a life… and into a news story.

Then we have the ordinary interactions between David and Margot now: the texts between them that pop up on his MacBook as he sends her a photo of the kitchen garbage bin she forgot to put out again, a FaceTime call as she blows him off by hurrying into a study group. We see their relationship sketched digitally, in a way that is all too familiar to us today: with their busy lives — his job in some kind of tech, her school and piano lessons — it’s easy for them to not actually physically see each other for days, but they’re still in such constant contact that it doesn’t feel that way. Which is why it’s actually more than a full 24 hours before David realizes that his daughter isn’t merely out and about living her life, but that something bad has happened to her that is keeping her away from home.

One digital detail becomes a meta commentary on how fathers are often not deeply involved in the minutiae of their children’s lives.

Or did she run away? That’s the conclusion police detective Vick (Debra Messing: Nothing Like the Holidays, The Women) comes to after a collaboration with David that looks at Margot’s life and movements, from her classmates who call her a bit of a loner to her melancholy Instagram photos of lonely places to the remote Google Maps location where her car was last caught on CCTV. The tiny touches that Chaganty layers up aren’t just about detective work but about how we use our devices and what they say about us. There’s the Google document that David starts to keep track of what Margot’s classmates know about the last day she was seen, which he is able to share digitally with Vick because, you know, that’s a practicality of how we do things now, and it represents concrete action that is keeping David distracted from his frantic worry. But there’s the poignant reality that David didn’t have any contact info for Margot’s friends; he has to go into his dead wife’s old computer — running clunky old Windows, such a contrast to David’s sleek new Mac desktop! — to find her very detailed information on, seemingly, every other child (and their parents!) that Margot ever had any connection to. It’s simultaneously a reminder of Pamela’s absence, a meta commentary on how fathers often get away with not being deeply involved in the minutiae of their own children’s lives, and a smack in the face to David, who is coming to the startling conclusion — for other reasons, too — that perhaps he didn’t know his daughter at all, and that this is his failing as a father.

Dad appears on the news... and #DadDidIt instantly starts trending on social media. Of course.
Dad appears on the news… and #DadDidIt instantly starts trending on social media. Of course.

Chaganty mostly keeps a tight rein on his all-on-a-laptop-screen conceit as Margot’s disappearance becomes public news: the social-media hashtags that spring up are spot-on, though the streaming video news coverage begins to strain it a little. And it’s a bit of a shame that Chaganty and Ohanian chose to revolve their story around a father. I adore John Cho and he’s terrific here, but men motivated by dead wives and imperiled daughters are not just old hat but starting to border on offensive… and if we’d gotten a mom desperately searching for her missing child, that would have made the film’s biggest problem, in the resolution of the mystery, less of an issue.

Still, the fascinating things about Searching are not primarily its plot (which is a good thing, because especially in the second half, it does not stand up to even the gentlest inquiry, if only in retrospect). This movie is notable instead as a rare instance of a mainstream film centering Asian-American characters; that it comes on the heels of Crazy Rich Asians is hopefully a harbinger that this lack of representation is being rectified (but probably not). More importantly, this is the first movie that I’m aware of — certainly the first one that will reach mainstream audiences — that acknowledges how much our everyday lives have changed in the past 20 years because of our devices and our always-on Internet, and how much our everyday interactions with friends and family, with current events, and with the world at large have been utterly rocked by the new technology, particularly social media. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine that 50 or 100 or 1000 years from now, this movie may be seen as an absolutely essential document of an earthshattering moment in human history, when civilization moved almost overnight from analog to digital, and how that impacted us.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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